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America’s dangerous stockpile of old plutonium cores

America’s nuclear headache: old plutonium with nowhere to go https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-nukes-plutonium-specialreport/americas-nuclear-headache-old-plutonium-with-nowhere-to-go-idUSKBN1HR1KC, Scot J. Paltrow

AMARILLO, Texas (Reuters) – In a sprawling plant near Amarillo, Texas, rows of workers perform by hand one of the most dangerous jobs in American industry. Contract workers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pantex facility gingerly remove the plutonium cores from retired nuclear warheads.

Although many safety rules are in place, a slip of the hand could mean disaster.

In Energy Department facilities around the country, there are 54 metric tons of surplus plutonium. Pantex, the plant near Amarillo, holds so much plutonium that it has exceeded the 20,000 cores, called “pits,” regulations allow it to hold in its temporary storage facility. There are enough cores there to cause thousands of megatons of nuclear explosions. More are added each day.

The delicate, potentially deadly dismantling of nuclear warheads at Pantex, while little noticed, has grown increasingly urgent to keep the United States from exceeding a limit of 1,550 warheads permitted under a 2010 treaty with Russia. The United States wants to dismantle older warheads so that it can substitute some of them with newer, more lethal weapons. Russia, too, is building new, dangerous weapons.

The United States has a vast amount of deadly plutonium, which terrorists would love to get their hands on. Under another agreement, Washington and Moscow each are required to render unusable for weapons 34 metric tons of plutonium. The purpose is twofold: keep the material out of the hands of bad guys, and eliminate the possibility of the two countries themselves using it again for weapons. An Energy Department website says the two countries combined have 68 metric tons designated for destruction – enough to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the United States has no permanent plan for what to do with its share.

Plutonium must be made permanently inaccessible because it has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.

“A MUCH MORE DANGEROUS SITUATION”

Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group based in Washington, says solving the problem of plutonium storage is urgent. In an increasingly unstable world, with terrorism, heightened international tensions and non-nuclear countries coveting the bomb, he says, the risk is that this metal of mass annihilation will be used again. William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Reuters: “We are in a much more dangerous situation today than we were in the Cold War.”

Washington has not even begun to take the steps needed to acquire additional space for burying plutonium more than 2,000 feet below ground – the depth considered safe. Much of America’s plutonium currently is stored in a building at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina – like Pantex, an Energy Department site. Savannah River used to house a reactor. Local opponents of the storage, such as Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, contend the facility was never built for holding plutonium and say there is a risk of leakage and accidents in which large amounts of radioactivity are released.

The Energy Department has a small experimental storage site underground in New Mexico. The department controls the radioactive materials – plutonium, uranium and tritium – used in America’s nuclear weapons and in the reactors of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. In a Senate hearing in June 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the Energy Department has been in talks with New Mexico officials to enlarge the site. Environmental groups there have strongly opposed expansion.

Under an agreement with Russia, the United States was to convert 34 metric tons of plutonium into fuel for civilian reactors that generate electricity. The fuel is known as MOX, for “mixed oxide fuel.” Plutonium and uranium are converted into chemical compounds called oxides, and mixed together in fuel rods for civilian nuclear power plants. The two metals are converted into oxides because these can’t cause nuclear explosions. But the U.S. effort has run into severe delays and cost overruns.

The alternative method is known as dilute-and-dispose. It involves blending plutonium with an inert material and storing it in casks. The casks, however, are projected to last only 50 years before beginning to leak, and so would need to be buried permanently deep underground.

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April 21, 2018 - Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, USA

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